The following article is an excerpt from the introduction of Randy Bigham’s
forthcoming biography, Finding Dorothy: An Appreciation of the Life and Career
of Dorothy Gibson Brulatour, which will soon be available in a fully illustrated, limited-edition.
A portion of proceeds to benefit the British Titanic Society
and the Fort Lee Film Commission
The tilted deck beneath the young woman’s feet told her
the ship was sinking.
Leaning against the rail, she pulled her sweater closer about
her as she stared into a pitch-black, frigid sky dotted with stars. The ocean
below was as calm as a garden pool. Except for the slight list, the magnificent
vessel seemed solid as ever. But as she gazed astern, a giant, ghostly white
mass of ice, silhouetted against heaven and sea, floated into the darkness.
How could this have happened on such a beautiful night?
Slowly she turned away from the railing, stricken with the
realization that disaster was at hand. The deck was dim but a faint glow illuminated
the shocked, frightened expression on her pale, pretty face. No one else was
around. Only the shadows saw her fear.
woman was 22-year-old actress Dorothy Gibson. She wasn’t really alone
but standing on a contrived set, surrounded by her director and two cameramen
who were advancing slowly toward her on a rolling dais. But the terror her face
registered was genuine as less than a week before this movie shoot Dorothy –
wearing the same sweater – had actually survived the sinking of Titanic.
She was also playing to more than shadows as the cameras recorded
her emotion. The film crew working with her that day admitted to being moved
by the subtlety and depth of her performance. Hundreds of thousands of people,
probably millions, all over the United States and Great Britain would soon agree.
Only one month after the real tragedy had devastated the world, Saved From
the Titanic, the first motion picture ever made about it, was released.
Today, the movie is lost. All that’s left are four scene
stills, two posters, a few advertisements, and a series of press articles and
reviews that attest to a remarkable piece of filmmaking for the time, praised
for its acting, advanced cinematography and special effects. Its loss is great
to film history.
The picture’s value lies in the unique combination of
an artistically directed and photographed story, the inspired acting of an actual
survivor of the catastrophe and its record-breaking production, following so
closely the actual event it replicated.
Titanic was destined to sink before audiences in numerous
movies, television shows, plays and musicals over the next 90 years. But the
only one that doesn’t exist on film in some way, and is therefore lost
to future generations, is the first phenomenal reenactment of the saga –
Saved From the Titanic.
* * *
To cinema scholars and Titanic buffs the most intriguing
component to this motion picture is, of course, its star, Dorothy Gibson. Yet
little has been written of her. Who was this actress? What ever happened to
Legend has sprung up in the absence of fact. For instance,
it is generally thought that except for her role in Saved From the Titanic,
she’d done nothing noteworthy in movies. She was only a minor actress,
a mediocre talent, not even a real star, it’s been claimed. Perhaps this
view formed because Dorothy Gibson inexplicably “disappeared” from
the screen after 1912. Yet little effort has been made until now to examine
the scope of her acting career or the reason for her sudden retirement.
The truth is that, although Dorothy ended up being a minor
player of the silent period, since she dropped out of filmmaking so early, she
received a great deal of publicity and excellent critical reviews for the movies
in which she appeared. Considered one of the most promising new actresses upon
her debut, her renown, albeit fleeting, helped solidify the emerging “star”
formula in motion pictures.
Director, cameramen and costars join Dorothy Gibson (fourth from right)
on the set of the drama, The Awakening (1912)
What’s more, the film studio for which Dorothy worked
was no flash in the pan. The new American affiliate of the prestigious French-owned
Éclair Company (later absorbed by Universal Pictures), was a leading
producer of high-quality one-reel dramas and comedies, crafted by some of the
best up-and-coming directors and cinematographers from the Continent, then in
the artistic vanguard of filmmaking. When Eclair started production in the United
States in 1911, much was expected from the studio by the country’s burgeoning
picture industry, then largely based out of the sprawling film colony of Fort
Lee, New Jersey. Éclair did not disappoint, becoming a training ground
for the finest and most influential technicians of early cinema – most
memorably, director Maurice Tourneur.
A scene from the Eclair comedy It Pays To Be Kind (1912). Dorothy is
on the far left.
Hired as Éclair’s first American leading lady,
Dorothy Gibson became noted for her work as a comedienne in a succession of
popular vehicles showcasing her beauty, charm and a naturalistic, restrained
acting style that astounded moviegoers accustomed to performers’ grand
theatrical gestures. Dorothy was ahead of her time in her anticipation of the
soulful technique later known as “The Method;” only contemporary
Mary Pickford was regarded as rivaling her in this delicate, refined approach
to movie acting. The popularity of her on-screen persona and the rare skill
she brought to her roles, begs the conclusion that, had Dorothy been more ambitious,
she’d have realized longer-lasting fame as an entertainer in the new medium
Another half-remembered aspect of Dorothy’s public life
is her pre-film work as a model for the foremost illustrator of the day, Harrison
Fisher. Whenever Dorothy is mentioned, it seems the sobriquet of “The
Harrison Fisher Girl” follows her. But as with her movie career, the extent
to which she met fame as a cover model hasn’t been thoroughly explored.
a way, Dorothy’s stint as a muse to Fisher is even more momentous than
her cinematic output. Unlike her appearance in movies, only one of which is known to survive, her work for Fisher has ensured the preservation of her image down
to the present day.
Her face with its big, heavy-lidded eyes and wide, curling
lips may have been nameless, but it inspired the most prolific commercial artist
of the era, whose stylized depictions of poised, healthy ingenues came to epitomize
the American girl of the early 20th century. Fisher, called the “historian
of American beauty,” delighted in recording the feminine ideal of his
time in full-color, sumptuous paintings of dainty yet sophisticated lasses,
replacing in significance his predecessor Charles Dana Gibson’s quick
pen-and-ink sketches of more sportive, tailored women.
As one of Fisher’s favorite models, Dorothy’s youth
and good looks, more recognizable to contemporaries than to modern eyes, adorned
the covers of best-selling magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan
(yes, Dorothy was a Cosmo Girl) and the Ladies Home Journal. In addition,
her image was reproduced on countless picture postcards, prints, posters and
in Fisher’s own high-priced art books.
If her professional existence has been shrouded in erroneous
or fragmented data, then Dorothy Gibson’s private life has been –
and to a marked degree still is – a greater mystery.
Until recently it was believed that Dorothy, following a notorious
and humiliating affair with (and eventual sham marriage to) film financier Jules
Brulatour, had lived out her life quietly and peacefully in Paris. Titanic
historian Phillip Gowan shattered that fiction with his astonishing discovery
of Dorothy’s involvement in Fascist politics in the 1930s, which led to
her imprisonment for alleged espionage during World War II.
This almost unbelievable dimension to her already fascinating
life has increased Dorothy’s appeal beyond that of an actress or model
or Titanic survivor to that of a deeply complex woman.
movements in the last decade and a half of her life remain a riddle but enough
has been disclosed to prove there was a lot more to Dorothy Gibson than beauty
Her personality was a hefty mass of contradictions. Though
daring and confident with a warm heart and free spirit, she could also be weak-willed,
selfish, cold and unassertive. Intelligent, savvy and highly motivated, she
appears to have also been impressionable, reckless and unscrupulous.
While outwardly independent, outspoken and determined, the
ironic source of Dorothy’s ambition was the traditionally feminine dream
of marriage and family – even though questionable morality was the route
she sought to attain her goal. Dorothy’s unorthodox value system and inconsistent
self-image derived partly from the influence of her permissive, seditious mother,
Pauline Boeson Gibson, to whom she remained devoted, despite outrageous sympathies
and predicaments which would threaten both their lives.
Dorothy Gibson’s ultimate journey into disgrace and obscurity
was nonetheless marked by incredible achievement, extraordinary hope, and amazing
redemption. While this book is a thorough, if not definitive, study of her career,
the private story presented in these pages is an enduring puzzle.
Perhaps all the pieces of her life will never fit but
a good portion of the tale has surfaced and is told, with its many twists and
turns, in this first full-scale attempt at finding and understanding Dorothy.
Cite this page Randy Bryan Bigham (2004) Star Turn: The Pictures and Passions of Dorothy Gibson Titanica! (ref: #4068, accessed 30th November 2015 11:37:09 AM)
URL : http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/dorothy-gibson.html
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